Since their marvelous 2004 debut Napoleon Dynamite, the husband and wife team of Jerusha and Jared Hess have steadily lost their allure. Promising on paper (and in their trailers), follow-ups Nacho Libre and Gentlemen Broncos carry on the awkward charm of their forebear, but come off more as slightly modified knock-offs than original works.
The trend continues with Jerusha’s directorial debut Austenland, in which Jane Austen obsessive Jane Haynes (Keri Russell) plunks down her life savings to visit an immersive Regency Period resort. Overseen by the obsessive Mrs. Wattlesbrook (Jane Seymour), guests of the resort dress in era-appropriate clothing, engage in pastimes of the day, and romance with a gentleman (but no touching) is guaranteed.
Such an unusual environment has some of the innate goofiness that defines Hess’ prior work, but doesn’t lend itself well to the director’s trademark extreme absurdity. Though the core details likely find origin in Shannon Hale’s source novel, the film’s occasional wacky tone seems more a product of Hess’ contributions to the screenplay, co-written with Hale. Along with Jennifer Coolidge playing her usual eccentric self, touches like the exaggerated, bounding manner with which Lady Heartwright (Georgia King) walks and a random visit from one of Nelly’s greatest hits try too hard and clash with the more refined humor that comes naturally with the setting.
Simple, straightforward tidbits like Coolidge’s air-headed ignorance of Pride & Prejudice or an English nobleman’s use of the word “ninja” are far more natural and successful. The latter is all the more enjoyable having issued from the resort’s token Mr. Darcy, Henry Nobley. In a fine bit of casting, JJ Feild looks and acts like the prototypical Austen male, his refined yet humane presence adding a consistency to the film’s ill-advised tangents. Scenes without him tend to be far less appealing and encourage the work’s less admirable qualities, which then infect what few perks the central narrative has to offer.
On the whole, Austenland offers enough twists and role reversals to keep things interesting, but Jane’s frustrating flip-flops between gullibility for the Austen act and an insistence for genuine love makes her a tough sell. A clear social misfit from the start, her romance of the resort’s kindly “stableboy” Martin (Bret McKenzie) occurs laughably fast with little evidence to suggest that she’s truly blossomed in this dream setting. Not the best fit for the story’s quirky demands, the rigid Russell is further hampered by the script’s multiple clumsy narrative shifts. With her waffling attitude and minimal appeal, it’s extra frustrating to watch suitors waste their time with her, whether or not their affections are real. As the old saying goes, if one can’t wholeheartedly root for the heroine in an Austen-inspired setting, perhaps it’s best to look elsewhere.
Rated PG-13 for some suggestive content and innuendo.
Austenland is currently playing at the Carolina Cinemas on Hendersonville Rd.